Problems in the coal belt: A challenge for the industry

When government agencies team with the environmental lobby to handicap an American industry, the eventual cost in jobs and diminished prosperity is not hard to foresee.

Global coal markets are enjoying a heyday, The Associated Press reported last week. Driven by Asian demand, coal is projected to challenge oil as the world’s top energy source within the next four years. Just last year, Ambre Energy of Australia, co-owner the Decker strip mine in Wyoming’s Powder River basin, was promising to ramp up mining there and start shipping millions of tons annually to countries including South Korea – “part of an industry-wide trend as companies battered by the domestic market looked to foreign buyers.”

What’s wrong with the domestic market for coal? In part, America is enjoying an embarrassment of riches: a relative glut of natural gas has dropped the price of that fuel, which burns cleaner than coal, even though today’s new coal plants scrub vastly more pollutants than yesterday’s. Precipitators can now remove 99.5 percent of the dark, sooty material called fly ash; limestone scrubbers can remove as much as 95 percent of emitted sulfur dioxide.

But coal is also the victim of a political jihad. Burning coal generates carbon dioxide, a non-toxic gas necessary to life on earth. But those who hope to see Americans accept a lower standard of living as an acceptable cost of lower energy consumption now identify carbon dioxide as a “pollutant,” thanks to its contribution to alleged global warming – which appears to have ended 16 years ago.

This explains, for instance, why Nevada’s own Sen. Harry Reid moved five years ago to block the construction of three coal-fired plants near Ely, which would have created jobs and helped hold down energy costs by generating enough power for more than a million households.

The notion that Americans can significantly reduce the globe’s temperature (assuming that were a wise goal) by halting their use of coal, when the major source of carbon dioxide is the oceans, while India and China bring another new coal-fired power plant on line each week, is surely a triumph of optimism over mathematics.

Nonetheless, “Ambre’s plans to build and expand West Coast ports to load fuel onto ships have become entangled in political opposition and bureaucratic red tape,” The AP now reports. Thus, 59 miners were laid off at the Decker mine, near Sheridan, last month, cutting the workforce roughly in half and adding to 300 jobs already lost last year in what has become the nation’s largest coal-producing region.

And so one of the points of light that gave hope for emergence from America’s five-year economic slump – boom times in the Montana-Wyoming coal belt – begins to flicker and dim.

On the bright side, the hundreds of millions of tons of coal known to lie beneath the hillsides of the Wyoming-Montana border will presumably still be there, should future generations of Americans decide they need them.

But for now, energy politics has again trumped energy economics. Remember that the next time you have to sit down after opening your power bill.

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